Dan Jenkins ’53 and his illustrious career aren’t over — not by a par-5 tee shot. But now he’s officially World Golf Hall of Fame worthy, even if we’ve known that a while.
by Rick Waters '95
Updated: Thursday, June 07, 2012
Dan Jenkins ’53 is only the third writer in the World Golf Hall of Fame and joins Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan as Fort Worthians enshrined. (Photo courtesy TCU Athletics Media Relations)
The greatest golfer Dan Jenkins ’53 ever knew called him one day in 1956 to play a practice round at Colonial Country Club. Afterward, sitting around over iced teas, Ben Hogan turned to the 25-year-old scribe and offered more than just a swing thought.
“You can keep the ball in the fairway off the tee, and you’re a good putter,” Jenkins recalled the great ball striker saying. “I wish I had your putting stroke. But everything in between is a mystery.”
Jenkins didn’t disagree.
“If you work with me three days a week for the next four months, you might be good enough to play in the national amateur,” Hogan added.
The writer known for hair-trigger comebacks was momentarily without words.
“I’m flattered and I appreciate that,” Jenkins finally managed. “And I’m embarrassed to have to turn down an offer of free golf lessons from the greatest player in the world, but I just want to be a sports writer. That’s all I’ve ever wanted to be.”
Jenkins will never forget what the golf legend did next.
“He looked at me like I’ve seen him look at other people, with that cold stare, and you don’t know whether you’re going to get a bullet in the head or a dagger in the heart, and you wait and it seems like an eternity, and then he smiled and he said, ‘Well, keep working at it.’ ”
For six decades, that’s all the Horned Frog journalist with the prolific typewriter and the razor-sharp wit has done, painting the scene of the sport’s pivotal moments, its colorful characters, picturesque venues and eternal champions. From Nelson and Hogan to Jack and Arnold to Tiger and Phil, he played golf with them one day and wrote about their triumphs and toils the next.
His contribution to the game was good enough for the World Golf Hall of Fame in St. Augustine, Fla., to induct him into its ranks in May.
The club has 141 members — more exclusive than Augusta — but two things in particular are worth boasting about, Jenkins thinks.
First, he is only the third writer in the institution, and the first not to be inducted posthumously, a fate that the crusty 82-year-old is delighted to have avoided. The other two, Jenkins would want you to know, are Bernard Darwin, grandson of Charles and a writer for the Times of London from 1907 to 1953; and Herbert Warren Wind, who wrote primarily for the New Yorker from the 1940s through the 1980s.
Second, Jenkins is the third inductee from Fort Worth, after his hero Hogan and Nelson. “Pretty strong company, don’t you think?” he grins.
The thing is, Jenkins is still going. In between alternately pining for TCU’s debut in the Big 12 and being terrified of it, he writes for Golf Digest. In June, he will have covered his 212th major tournament — the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club near San Francisco.
But even during his 22-year career at Sports Illustrated and before that at the now-defunct Fort Worth Press, his wisecracking style came straight off the Fort Worth municipal golf courses where he played as a kid.
In Jenkins's 11 novels, including Semi-Tough, on pro football, and Dead-Solid Perfect, on golf, his snarky characters almost all hail from Cowtown and attended Paschal High School, just like he and Hogan did. Great writers write what they know.
And Jenkins knows funny. He is often credited with forging a new style of sports journalism, but the writer his ownself doesn’t see it that way.
“I just brought some humor to it. That’s all,” he said. “It wasn’t a conscious decision or anything. It’s just me. It was natural. People give me a lot more credit than I deserve.”
“Golf was never a religion to me,” he went on. “The things people come up with, all the hollering and the sayings, it’s just funny. Bad shots are funny, too, especially when somebody else hits them.”
Jenkins took up golf at age 8, on a nine-hole course with oiled-sand greens near his working-class home on Fort Worth’s South Side. He came of age just as Nelson and Hogan were hitting their stride.
The first tournament he attended was the 1941 U.S. Open at Colonial. The Fort Worth Star-Telegram ran a photo from the tournament that Jenkins displays in his office. It depicts four pros — Nelson, Gene Sarazen, Tommy Armour and Lawson Little — walking down a fairway with Jenkins, then 11, striding just visible behind them.
Jenkins added a balloon caption that reads, “If that little kid behind us grows up to be a golf writer, this game is in big trouble.”
Lucky for everyone who picked up a club, he did.
“I’d never seen balls [hit with backspin] before. I’d never seen bent grass. I’d never seen beltless pants,” Jenkins recalled. “Golf was glamorous. The pros dressed like gangsters and movie stars. Everybody smoked.”
He has another photo from the 1941 Open of the winner, Craig Wood, teeing off on the final hole with a lit cigarette in his mouth. “Can you imagine that? The biggest tournament in his life?”
Jenkins worked at the Press while earning three letters in golf at TCU from 1950 to 1952. But he caught a glimpse of Hogan, Nelson, and Sam Snead each win the PGA Tour event in Dallas, and Hogan win the first Colonial Invitational in 1946.
“By the time I left high school, even though I wasn’t covering golf, I felt like I had been covering golf,” he said.
Like a lot of careers viewed in retrospect, Jenkins always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. While reporting for the Press, he got to know Hogan better than any journalist.
“I know he could be short with people. I saw it. He didn’t suffer fools. But he was never anything but great with me,” he said.
Those glory days gave him access to players that writers don’t have today.
“They don’t need us lowly golf writers any more, I guess. They’ve got TV and agents and all. But back then, they liked us. They actually wanted us in the locker rooms. We made friends, we were convivial, we went out to eat and drink together. That’s all been lost,” he said.
The upside of modern golf coverage: Twitter. Jenkins, whose jocularity is a match made in heaven for the platform, now delivers some his best lines in 140-character bursts:
Apr. 7 Tiger kicked his 9-iron yesterday. Best contact he made all day.
Apr. 7 Have I ever kicked a golf club? Let me count the ways.
Apr. 7 The azaleas at Augusta National are past peak, but the sundresses have bloomed. In golf, everything evens out.
Feb. 2 Was reminded that Hogan was hit head-on by a bus on this date in 1949. It was the day my career almost ended before it ever got started.
Dec. 14 So I'm getting in the World Golf Hall of Fame. I'm not turning it down, whether it's deserved or not. Does braid and a saber come with it?
The writer’s connection to players, and his own experience as a scratch tournament golfer, made him deeply knowledgeable about the game.
“The key to any good sports story is identifying the defining moment,” he said. “In football games or a boxing match, it’s usually pretty obvious. But in golf, sometimes it happens on Thursday. Usually it’s Sunday, but guys who don’t know the game, they can miss it.”
The two other Hall of Fame writers, Darwin and Wind, were more poetic than Jenkins. That’s fine with Jenkins, but he argues for funny.
“They weren’t just jokes to me, they were attitude,” he said. “Anybody can make jokes. But unless they come from conviction, and there’s truth in them, you haven’t nailed it. They aren’t as funny as they could be and they don’t make a point.”
On the Web:
Follow Jenkins on Twitter at @danjenkinsgd.